12/13/2012 05:22 pm ET Updated Feb 12, 2013

The Real Truth About the Star of Bethlehem

The biblical account of constellations at play around Jesus' birth is rife with contradictions, recording astronomical events that are unusual to the point of impossible, such as supernovas, comets and conjunctions. For centuries, the Star of Bethlehem hovered over the gray areas of myth, miracle and science. But a documentary featured on, Christmas Star, combines current historical research with astronomical facts, shedding new light on how the birth of Christ may have been experienced -- from above.

Starry possibilities
Before I saw this film, I thought the Star of Bethlehem was a minor player in the general auspiciousness of the birth of Christ -- not a rare and important astronomical event. But, no pun intended, it actually plays a starring role in the denouement of Christianity. Many theories abound as to what the star was: a supernova, comet, meteor, conjunction, Aurora Borealis or Venus. Part of the fascination with the night sky is that it gives important evidence in support of when and where Christ was born. Historians have given the date of Christ's birth at a much broader range than most people realize, tracking it as occurring anywhere from 4 B.C. to 1 A.D., as well as more likely to have taken place in September than December.

Tricky Trajectory
This five year window eliminates many possibilities. Meteors are too transitory to count, and there were only two supernovae recorded near the time of the Nativity: one in 134 B.C., the other in 173 A.D. According to the Gospel of Matthew, which narrates the birth of Jesus, the star that appears in the east inspires the Magi to travel to Jerusalem. The star's trajectory is congruent only with comets, planets or groupings of planets that move in a similar way. Comets, historically, don't really fit the timeline either, leaving the star of Bethlehem most likely a rare alignment of planets.

Astrology meets Astronomy
While the film does get technical, the story of the stars makes for compelling fodder. I loved learning about the symbolism of the night sky, such as the historically-held belief that the birth and death of a great man was always accompanied by a comet, or that the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn heralds a birth. In fact, this film is as much about ancient astrology and astronomy as it is about the Nativity. The comparison between Hindu and Judeo-Christian astrology, Chinese astronomy, and Zoroastrian cosmology gave me new appreciation for our place not just in the world, but in the galaxy. The film offers a profound reminder that, to paraphrase Shakespeare, there are more things in heaven and earth than we can dream of in our philosophies.

Elizabeth Marglin is a freelance writer for An award-winning writer, she's covered everything from architecture to zoos. She is the co-author of The Mother's Wisdom Deck and writes the blog Mothering with Soul.